The Rigor

Curriculum Matters & the Risk of “Other”
“I do not focus on what SchoolLess isn’t getting—some of which is loss, some of which is gain—but on what he is getting.”
The RigorChapter:The Home School Story
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A few weeks back, as Sunday night gloom descended, SchoolLess was bunkered down in the orange room binging on “Arrested Development.”

Skeptic wasn’t happy.

“Where’s the rigor?” she asked me.  “I don’t see the rigor.”

Oddly, momentarily, I substituted “river” for “rigor,” which somehow made more sense to me.  My hesitation triggered some not-quite-dead neurons and the brief gap in conversation was quickly filled with jabs, barbs, and beseechments recalled from our dysfunctional home school debates of yore.

What is rigor?

Synonyms, according to Roget’s Thesaurus, include:  rigidity and inflexibility; intolerance and obstinacy; but, also, aha, exactitude and precision.

More pejorative than expected or meant (happy to give benefit of the doubt):  exactitude and precision.  Fine enough, if perhaps over-valued, commodities, as they can limit one’s willingness to take intellectual risks.

Is rigor doing twenty math problems a night?  Would forty problems be more rigorous?  Most would say “yes,” and so it seems that rigor has been misconstrued— it’s about quantity only as a means to quality.  Can cooking dinner be rigor?  A walk in the park?  A game of Risk?  Yoga?  Practicing clarinet?  Playing clarinet?

When Skeptic says rigor does she really mean productivity?  Seriousness?  Ambition?   “Tradition”?

Around this time, Scitcha— SchoolLess’s science teacher— and I had a conversation about the paradox of progressive education.  Many dismiss it out of hand— the Fox hounds, the Ivy-or-busters, the okay-but-what-about-the-real-world caveators.  Others like it in theory but can’t hack the reality that progressively educated kids may not immediately do well on conservative standardized tests (later, despite the conservatism, they do just fine).  We live in an impatient and fearful world where convention plays.

Intellectual consistency is contingent:  yes, unless.  We may not believe in SAT tutoring but we make our kids do it.  In Bush v. Gore, Scalia’s originalism goes AWOL faster than young GWB fled the Texas National Guard.

In our best moments, Skeptic and I check and balance each other when it comes to educational philosophy.  Skeptic has an alternative streak in her but it’s often suppressed by anxiety.  I, conventional appearances aside, tend toward the oppositional, thus allowing her to be vicariously antiestablishment.

I don’t live on the margins nor do I want my kids to.  Turn on, tune in, drop out; absolute Waldorf, Montessori rules; be happy, don’t worry— none of that is quite my style.  Skeptic’s desire for our boys to achieve traditional academic success keeps me from wandering too far off the main drag.

With a push from me and a pull from her, the hope is that SchoolLess and SmallerMan will find a happy medium.  Poetry major at Princeton?

Earlier this fall, SchoolLess, a sporadically enthusiastic reader, was feeling bogged down by books.  He felt particularly uninspired— been there, done that— by A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.   Although he has found literary niches to mine over the years— Lemony Snicket, Daniel Pinkwater, Ned Vizzini— he hadn’t recently been doing much digging in anybody’s oeuvre.

SchoolLess asked me this: what makes books better than shows or movies?

I resisted the soapbox, the knee jerk, the “kids today” lecture.  It wasn’t easy to pull my rhetorical punches— I teach novels and stories, I want to write them, I am rarely happier than when in a reading flow.  The expectations of daily living and my looping mind, a dispositional handicap SchoolLess seems to have inherited, limit both the occurrence and the duration of these moments, but the yearning persists.

First words out of my mouth:  “You’re right.”

Next words:  “Sort of.”

I explained that books tend to be complex and depthful in terms of character, culture, and narrative structure, whereas with many films and most TV shows there’s no there there.  “Books,” as Thoreau said, “must be read as reservedly and deliberately as they were written.”

Reading requires more thinking, more imagining, more contemplating, more questioning.   In the case of a good novel, depth and complexity are inherent, whereas with lighter “texts” the “reader” must create his own intellectual interest.  There’s more to say about The Catcher in the Rye than American Idol, and not just because we don’t yet have perspective on the latter. Shows like “The Wire”— perhaps the best American narrative produced in the twenty-first century—are exceptions.  We don’t look at TV— well, my grandmother did— we watch it:  passive, voyeuristic, detached.  As SmallerMan said the other day when answering who, what, and where questions about a book he was reading for school:  “reading a story is not only knowing what happened.”

Our world has become increasingly visual, fragmented, unpredictable (all things, by the way, that would seem to call out for a progressive approach).  Embrace the new, challenge it, but don’t deny it.

I have read reviews of Grand Theft Auto that discuss it as a narrative and artistic experience akin to a multilayered novel (Doctorow, Pynchon) or movie (The Godfather).  “The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive,” Malcolm X wrote in his Autobiography.  Can you imagine this being said about a video game?  Seth Schiesl, in the recent New York Times article “Motion, Sensitive,” can, as he suggests that the increasingly engaging experience of video games “may [bring] people closer to art.”  Maybe today’s popular culture is actually making us smarter.

I started off the year with, dare I say it, a rigorous reading list fort SchoolLess but he felt unduly pressured.  He’s no shirker and so his push for a change of course seemed reasonable. We’ve now moved into a less hierarchical, always be reading approach to literature— high, low, funny, serious, it’s almost all good.  In the post-Christmas euphoria of dark, cold January, SchoolLesss and I will devote some time to “studying” a TV show. Anything to help SchoolLess take SmallerMan’s advice and chillax.

I have this vision:  the four of us reading at night, aloud together or silently parallel.  It rarely happens.  We are too easily caught up in the momentum of unimportant things.

I do not glorify back in the day.  Certain things were better, certain things were not, it’s delusional to think otherwise.  I do not focus on what SchoolLess isn’t getting— some of which is loss, some of which is gain— but on what he is getting.  One of the hoped-for gains of home school was an increase for SchoolLess in moments when he felt willing and able to choose his own means of productivity, his own rigor.

Where’s the rigor?

The rigor is in the village, the rigor is in the city, the rigor is in the music, the rigor is in the choices, the rigor is in the relationships, the rigor is in the sense of self, the rigor is in doing what feels right, the rigor can be anywhere.

Where’s the river?  Ask somebody else.  I am known for my terrible sense of direction.

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